Synthia SAINT JAMES, a world renowned visual artist, has created a commissioned painting to mark the 130th anniversary of Kentucky State University.
SAINT JAMES has created cover art for numerous authors and has also written children’s books and poetry. While Saint James was in Frankfort doing research for her painting early in 2016, she was recognized by the Kentucky House and Senate. She also received the distinction of being named a Kentucky Colonel.
We sat down with SAINT JAMES to talk about her work and the importance of the arts.
O&U: How did the anniversary commission come about?
SSJ: It was Dr. Karen Bearden, President of the Board of Regents for Kentucky State University, who initiated the idea of commissioning me to create a painting celebrating KSU’s 130th anniversary. She had seen the painting I created for Bennett College, “Bennett Belles.” I’ve been honored to have been commissioned to create several paintings for HBCUs.
O&U: You have a very distinct style. People hear your name and immediately an image pops into their head: the colors, the layers, the abstract. How would you describe your style?
SSJ: I’m a self-taught artist and my style came about after years of challenging myself to paint everything from wild and domestic animals and people realistically. In 1985, I visited the island of Martinique and loved the market places. So I challenged myself to paint people without features, but creatively making it possible for the viewer to feel each person’s age, emotions or culture through their body language. However, I don’t consider my paintings to be abstract. Many are what I would call figurative, but I also paint landscapes and seascapes often with people in them.
O&U: Do you subscribe to the idea that artists should develop a routine/process? If so, what’s yours?
SSJ: I think that each artist should find what works best for them and stick with whatever that is or may change to in the future.
O&U: How do you know when a piece is finished? Do you find it easy to let go of a piece?
SSJ: One artist told me many years ago that a painting is never finished, sometimes he would paint on one piece for years, going back to it from time to time. But for me it’s complete at about the time I’m satisfied with it enough to sign it.
O&U: Let’s talk about the importance of the arts and arts education.
SSJ: Without the arts there’s no balance. It’s not natural or healthy to use only one side of our brain. We’d end up lopsided. The arts are entertaining, healing, soothing and relaxing for all. And without them insanity would prevail.
O&U: What do you do when inspiration doesn’t come?
SSJ: If possible, I stop whatever I’m doing and go with the flow. If not, I jot down some notes and/or try to envision it and keep it in my memory. Or if it’s nature, I take some photos with my cell phone.
O&U: What was the first piece you sold?
SSJ: An abstract oil painting, about 18” x 24″ in size, when I was 20 years old (1969) in New York City. I worked for a mortgage insurance company—Security Title and Guaranty on Fifth Avenue—as an accounts receivable clerk, and one of the lawyers at the firm (Daniel Fischman) commissioned me to create a painting for his apartment. On pay days, my co-workers noticed that I would purchase art supplies on my lunch break. On the merit of this alone, Dan commissioned me. What followed was a string of commissions, beginning with Dan commissioning a second painting along with commissions from my supervisor and co-workers. I was completely amazed at being paid for what I love doing.